"While I have always considered myself sensitive to and effective on gender issues in the workplace," writes Cisco CEO John Chambers in a leaked email, "my eyes were opened in new ways and I feel a renewed sense of urgency to make the progress we haven't made in the last decade."
This awakening is the result of a meeting with Sheryl Sandberg and reading her just-published book, Lean In. If this is the impact of Sandberg's book, I will be applauding. As she writes in the book, there is a "chicken and egg argument" about which comes first: fixing organizations or fixing women's "internal impediments." She admits to focusing on women, and leaves others to focus on organizations.
As someone who has spent her career focusing on this other part of the equation, I offer a few suggestions for John Chambers on how to make this initiative really work:
1. Sell the "why." Why does Chambers want to gender balance Cisco? For it to work, he needs to make sense of this goal. He says that "the result of creating a more equal environment will not just be better performance for our organizations, but quite likely greater happiness for all." But does his team buy this? Many leaders don't think they need to explain the why of gender balance. To them, it is a very obvious benefit to their businesses. But most of Chambers's (predominantly male) colleagues probably don't share this belief. And until they do, or he has convinced them of it, he can push all you like but will be unlikely to improve balance more in the next decade than in the last.
Companies that successfully attain gender balance do so because their leaders believe it will improve quality, culture, performance and the bottom line.
2. Focus on men... Chambers admirably admits that he is after culture change. "I believe we — together — need to drive a fundamental culture change and it is up to us as leaders to make this change happen. What we have been doing hasn't worked, and it is time to adjust." He also has the courage to publicly admit that while he thought he was enlightened, he was doing the wrong things.
The challenge ahead is this: the real obstacle in most companies is not women. It is the existing leadership mindset, culture, and styles. This means most of the focus needs to be on changing the male majority, not on changing women. Chambers will need to get all his leaders to share the discovery that he has just made: that the environment they think of as a meritocracy may not be quite as fair and equitable as they thought. But he needs to be careful: realizing this shouldn't lead to blaming men. That's asking for backlash.
3. ...but don't blame them. "Without realizing it, we operate every day with gender stereotypes and biases, many of which we do not realize." While this is true, I'd suggest it's a highly demotivating and unnecessary way to launch the change.
Accusing men is a great way, in my experience, to shut them down. Instead use another approach: reframe gender balance as one of the century's most obvious business opportunities. This isn't a hard case to make, and it lets a company get everyone aligned and focused on what everyone wins from gender balance. By contrast, framing imbalance as a problem caused by their biases is setting ourselves up to fail. Most of Chambers's male colleagues are probably convinced and committed to equality of treatment. They believe they practice it in their management. So asking them, as he does, to come up with changes, will not be understood until they have gone through some phase of building understanding (see below). Reading a book may not quite do it.
4. Stop fixing women... Framing the problem as Chambers did in his letter, his managers will inevitably look at what more they can do for women, and start launching box-ticking initiatives aimed only at women. This seems to be what he is asking for, when he writes that he's "ordering each of my top managers to come up with new women-focused initiatives and put them into their development plans."
This always leads to more "women's" programs — networks, coaching, assertiveness-training. This is the challenge that Sandberg's book presents: reinforcing the assumption that male leaders will think women still need fixing and empowering. This is not the problem. The world has never seen a more ambitious, educated and skilled wave of women entering the workforce. Women just need meritocracies — and managers skilled in leading across genders, who understand that the differences they bring to the table aren't to be fixed. They're to be celebrated — and used.
5. ...or making them a diversity demographic. Who ever came up with the idea of positioning 60% of university graduates and 80% of consumer purchasing decision-makers as a "diversity" demographic? Chambers repeats this mistake by telling his leaders that if they need help coming up with ideas, they should contact his (female) Diversity Officer. By the way, it doesn't help gender balancing that he has women in all the stereotypical female functions, HR and Diversity... why not add some men to those functions and have more women in finance and strategy?
Pull gender balancing out of its diversity ghetto. Is it fundamental to your business success over the next decade? Then get a high profile male leader to lead the charge. Make it a business issue, not a diversity issue.
6. Get all leaders skilled at managing across genders. Cisco will need to spend a bit of time and money building skills among their leaders and managers. It is very hard to manage across genders when people don't really understand what the differences are and how they affect the workplace. The challenge here is not to treat everyone equally and the same (most managers think they already do), but to treat everyone equally and different, with a deep understanding of what those differences are.
You don't manage Chinese employees or customers the same as you would an American employee or customer. You learn their language and culture. Cisco has probably spent a lot of time and money getting Cisco to understand the Chinese. For this gender initiative to really work, they'll need to build the same competencies for their managers, both male and female, to understand the differences and opportunities of gender. That takes rael money budgeted towards it.
7. Make it strategic, sexy, and fun. What most surprises my clients is how much fun this topic can be. Every man and woman on the planet today is facing gender issues at home and at work. Helping them to understand and navigate one of human history's biggest revolutions doesn't have to be an accusatory man-bashing exercise. It can be an opportunity to share and learn about one of the great mysteries that science hasn't yet even begun to explain: How do we better understand each other?
The more strategically leaders can frame the issue — as a lever to achieving existing goals (growth, customer centricity, globalization), rather than a politically correct addition to their already over-burdened agendas — the more enthusiasm they'll generate. Gender balanced companies have better performance, better talent and better customer and stakeholder relationships. But John Chambers will need to say it, show it, prove it — and then deliver it to actually get everyone to believe it.
If Cisco runs this as a women-focused diversity initiative, in ten years they'll be right where they are now. Run it as a key driver in keeping the company in tune with 21st century talent and customers and they may just make history.